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Cultural Critique 58 (2004) 56-81

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World Piece

What the Miss World Pageant Can Teach about Globalization

Professional investment may be likened to those newspaper competitions in which the competitors have to pick out the six prettiest faces from a hundred photographs, the prize being awarded to the competitor whose choice most nearly corresponds to the average preferences of the competitors as a whole, so that each competitor has to pick, not those faces that the competitor finds prettiest, but those which he thinks likeliest to catch the fancy of the other competitors, all of whom are looking at the problem from the same point of view. It is not a case of choosing those which, to the best of one's judgment, are really the prettiest, nor even those which average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects average opinion to be.
John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money

I wish I could have staged this academic essay as a beauty pageant. In the spirit of some of the protesters at the Miss World pageant at Bangalore in 1996, who wore caps for Miss Illness, Miss Poverty, and Miss Unemployment, possible contestants for this paper as beauty contest might have included Miss False Consciousness, Miss National Identity, Miss Kinda Subversive-Kinda Hegemonic, Miss Capitalism (a large girl), Miss Overdetermined (a hot favorite), and the likely winner, Miss Taken. They would compete for the first prize, Miss Explain, the second prize, Miss Describe, and third prize, Miss Research. The winners would, of course, be announced in reverse order. I have produced something more ponderous, because beauty pageants are serious business, though I reserve the fantasy of putting Miss False Consciousness in a swimsuit and asking him if he were a color what color would he be. [End Page 56]


Reading the history and key controversies of the now fifty-year-old history of the Miss World pageant may permit insight into current debates around the globalization of popular culture in unsettling ways. The pageant may allow one to contest theories of popular culture that argue for the homogenizing effects of the culture industry and that read the specularity of late capitalism's popular cultural forms as capital's great pacifier.1 In many locations, the pageant is a public spectacle that focuses impassioned gender and national/cultural identity debates. Moreover, beauty pageants provide scholarships for winners and considerable public platforms for various kinds of social activism. In many poorer communities, pageants represent real and aspirational opportunities for upward mobility in terms of educational and career opportunities, not to mention cash. Pageants, more obviously, stage, expose and resolve crises in group representation in the flesh. In recent years, the Miss World Pageant has become, in an emergent international public sphere, an explosive flashpoint around questions of gender, modernity, and development.

The pageant is equally embarrassing to those critics who locate resistance in either the forms of hybridity that occur when capitalist forms, subjectivities, embodiments, and attachments hit the local or to those who find possibilities for political agency in the very popularity of popular culture, most often by rethinking consumption as a human activity rife with agency. As much as the pageant's forms and rituals may be indigenized, to use Arjun Appadurai's term, the racial, gender, and class norms the pageant inculcates and celebrates remain recognizably those of white, middle-class femininity (Appadurai 1996, 139-57). A Foucauldian conception of power as a set of institutions that both produces and controls subjects would appear to avoid best the resistance or coercion models implied by the above two positions, though the beauty queen embodies biopower in too literal a way to emblematize power, even paradoxically as its victim (Foucault 1978, 135-45). These would be some of the major theoretical stakes in considering the pageant under the rubric of the globalization of popular culture.

Historically, the pageant reflects, not always neatly, recent world-historical periodizations, as...


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